Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ride On Extra buses will be free during October

Two of the alternatives to the proposed boondoggle of Bus Rapid Transit in Montgomery County - express buses and free Ride On fares - will be realized on a very limited basis in October: A new express bus service called Ride On Extra will begin service along MD 355, and fares on Ride On Extra will be free that month. Service will run between Gaithersburg and Medical Center station in Bethesda.

The buses are a lite version of BRT, with similar features like low-floor boarding, 10-minute peak rush hour headways, and free Wi-Fi, but will not take travel lanes along Rockville Pike from cars (as BRT will). Ride On Extra buses will also have traffic signal priority, but the County has never addressed how that random impact on traffic signals will affect the synchronization of lights up and down the Pike. It could cause major rush hour delays on an already-jammed road.

There's no mention of how much the month of free service will cost taxpayers, either. Ride On Extra stops will include Lakeforest Transit Center, Summit Ave., Westland Dr., Shady Grove Metro, Montgomery College, Rockville Metro, Edmonston Dr., Halpine Rd., Marinelli Rd., Security Ln., Tuckerman Ln., and Medical Center. There will be new bus shelters and bus stop flag signs to identify Ride On Extra bus stops.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Fredericksburg office market is hot, moribund MoCo's is not

Fredericksburg is a boom town compared to moribund Montgomery County. While our County Council is fighting any attempt to build the roads necessary to jumpstart our lethargic private sector economy, and only talks about increasing MARC rail capacity and a White Flint station, Virginia is building Express Lanes down to Stafford County and more Virginia Railway Express stops and extensions. Along with the business-friendly policies of Virginia and Spotsylvania County, Fredericksburg is booming, while Montgomery County has suffered a net loss of jobs over the last decade, and a loss of over 2000 jobs in retail alone since 2000.

The latest evidence of the difference in business climate is the Liberty Place project in downtown Fredericksburg. Once conceived of as luxury condos, the project will now be an 86000 SF office building with ground floor retail and restaurants facing William Street. "We're responding to the market," Liberty Place developer Tom Wack told The Free Lance-Star of Frederickburg, which noted the "strong demand for commercial property" in the city. The developers will offer free parking for the public in a garage connected to the office building (imagine that in any urban center of Montgomery County!) as part of a deal with the city.

The Fredericksburg City Council is set to vote on a memorandum of understanding for the deal tonight. Very few office projects are being developed in Montgomery County. The JBG Companies is constructing a new office building on Bethesda Avenue, but could not find an anchor tenant, and will now move its own headquarters into the building from down the road in Friendship Heights to fill the vacancy.

"Downtown's gotten pretty hot," Wack said of Fredericksburg. The office market is heating up as home construction continues to explode around Fredericksburg, which recently scored the idX Corporation factory that fled Maryland and the Lidl distribution center with 200 jobs (Virginia also won the sweepstakes for the Lidl corporate headquarters).

Every imaginable restaurant can be found in Fredericksburg, as well as the kind of hip breweries our County Council likes to talk about. Stafford and Spotsylvania counties are adding the jobs that will put less cars on the roads into D.C. every morning. And new infrastructure to reduce congestion for the commuters and businesses who make the increasingly-smart choice to locate in the Fredericksburg area.

Meanwhile, the bedroom-community-building Montgomery County Council is - as usual - asleep at the switch.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

MoCo has the Lockheed HQ, but didn't try to get the Lockheed "factory of the future"

"We don't need the Lockheed headquarters," Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Floreen infamously declared at the Aspen Hill Library in 2010. Such a blase attitude about one of only 3 Fortune 500 headquarters in the County is indicative of why our private sector economy has been moribund for so many years. MoCo intentionally passed on the FBI headquarters; didn't even bother to pursue the idX factory that wound up going to Fredericksburg; and was soundly defeated by Virginia in the contests to woo the headquarters of Volkswagen, Hilton Hotels, Intelsat, Corporate Executive Board, and Lidl, to name just a few. As a result, we've suffered a net loss in jobs over the last decade.

Yesterday, we found out just how blase County officials' attitude toward Lockheed Martin was. While current elected officials inherited the Lockheed headquarters in Bethesda, they apparently have no ongoing dialogue or partnership with the defense and aerospace megafirm. In fact, they've even tried their best to push Lockheed out of the County. As a result, Lockheed is now building a $350 million, 266000 SF "satellite factory of the future" in Waterton Canyon, Colorado, not Montgomery County.

We have many, many vacant properties that could have easily accommodated this factory. Even the recently sold Comsat Building in Clarksburg and former IBM property in Gaithersburg could have been a good fit in terms of size. Montgomery County continues to have the potential aerospace advantages of being near Goddard Flight Center, the Wallops Island launch facility, and numerous airbases as well as the Pentagon - but has yet to take advantage of the advantages!

This is exactly the type of facility I've been arguing we need - aerospace corporate offices, research facilities and high-tech aerospace and defense manufacturing. Why were we not in the running for this factory, or even engaging Lockheed about how we could partner on future ventures? This was clearly in the planning stages early enough that we could have filled the Comsat or IBM site before they were sold. That could have put hundreds of high-wage jobs in the I-270 corridor, and enable Montgomery County residents to drive west or north to work, without leaving the County. Instead, the Comsat site will be residential, and dump hundreds more cars going south on 270 every morning.

Montgomery County is notorious across the country, and across the region, for its anti-business climate fostered by the County Council. In contrast, "State and local officials in Colorado have helped strengthen the aerospace industry and foster an environment that helps aerospace companies thrive and grow," according to a statement from Lockheed Wednesday. What a contrast. What a loss.

It takes a special kind of incompetence to get shut out by a company located in your own jurisdiction. A special kind of ignoramus, to not grab the lowest-hanging economic development fruit in the area you are elected to represent. It's "business"-as-usual for moribund Montgomery County.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Marijuana dispensary to open at Middlebrook Square shopping center in Germantown

A medical marijuana dispensary will open across from the new Holy Cross Hospital in Germantown, at 11526 Middlebrook Road, in the Middlebrook Square shopping center. The 2924 SF space is one of several in Montgomery County approved by the state as "cannabis dispensaries." Patients will have to go through a formal process, and have qualifying medical conditions to obtain pot at the dispensary, somewhat like having a doctor give you a prescription to take to a pharmacy.

MoCo Council bodyslammed by regional leaders on new Potomac crossing

Regional leaders delivered a stinging rebuke to the Montgomery County Council this week, approving a new Potomac River crossing study over MoCo councilmembers' objections. The County Council had unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday opposing a new bridge, or even a study of a new bridge. On Wednesday, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) met to consider the crossing and 9 other items for study.

In addition to delivering the resolution to the board, Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich participated in the meeting, expending political capital to try and stop a bridge that would provide an economic boon to Montgomery County. The politically-suicidal move left many on the Board scratching their heads. It also again proved that the Council is impotent, even among their Democratic colleagues at the state level, and across the region. Elected officials on the TPB from the cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg, including Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton (who chairs the TPB) all backed studying the bridge.

Even one of the Council's war-on-cars fellow travelers, Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette, was perplexed as to why MoCo councilmembers would oppose objective study of a new bridge. Fisette said he too opposed the bridge, but thought it should be studied like the other projects. COG's own 2012 study showed that 25% of traffic on the American Legion Bridge during rush hour is traveling to, or from, the Dulles area. In addition, 27% of Virginia drivers crossing into Maryland are heading to I-270.

During discussion of the Council resolution earlier this week, Elrich had stated a new crossing was "not in the County's economic interest." This is simply not true, as many CEOs whose firms chose Virginia over Montgomery County have cited our county's lack of direct access to Dulles Airport as one of the deciding factors. Elrich said he wanted to prevent competition with BWI Airport, but BWI - like National Airport - doesn't offer the frequency and scope of international business flights that Dulles does. The largest and most-luxurious aircraft can't even land at BWI and National, but can be accommodated by runways at Dulles.

Councilmember Craig Rice said there was "not any benefit for the upcounty" in building a new bridge. Damascus, Clarksburg and Germantown residents who work in the Dulles area, and parts of Fairfax County, would vehemently disagree. Not to mention that offloading a quarter of the traffic on the American Legion Bridge benefits everyone using I-495 and I-270 during rush hour.

Another false impression was given by Councilmember Sid Katz, who declared, "the reality is, there's no money for this." With a private firm building the highway and bridge as a toll facility, the beauty of it is, very little taxpayer money would be needed. Since the road would most likely be an extension of the ICC/Sam Eig Highway, the private operator could also take control of the ICC, and lower tolls along the length of the route within Maryland.

Of the ten projects approved for study by the TPB, the Potomac River crossing would move the most people in the shortest time, for the least dollar amount per-person. In opposing it, the Council not only again declared war on their own constituents, but are actively trying to prevent congestion relief and job creation within Montgomery County, at the behest of their developer masters who want to use office zones for residential development. Protecting BWI, which can't compete on business flights with Dulles, at their constituents' expense? It sounds like Berliner, George Leventhal and Elrich are running for Baltimore mayor, not Montgomery County Executive.

Friday, June 30, 2017

MoCo Council wants to enter student loan business, as Katz sounds alarm on County debt

Plan would create 
with $20-30 million
start-up cost

After creating a barrage of new offices and six-figure staff positions in the last year alone, opening their own microloan bank, and committing Montgomery County to staggering financial liabilities on bus rapid transit and the Purple Line, the Montgomery County Council is now planning to enter the student loan industry. That's not a misprint, and today isn't April 1. But just four days before announcing its intentions, one Councilmember, Sid Katz, raised red flags on the County's massive debt load.

The Council's proposal would create a new Montgomery County Student Loan Refinancing Authority to refinance student loans, much like the Independent Transit Authority that was panned and ultimately defeated by taxpayer opposition. Such an Authority would potentially have all the features hated in the ITA concept - the ability to raise taxes, carry unlimited amounts of debt that could end up being dumped back onto the taxpayers, and a lack of direct accountability to voters. The specifics will be unknown until a final state bill to create the Authority (sound familiar from the ITA fight?) is written, but one detail known is that the Authority will have the power to issue bonds. It should be noted that no other county in the United States currently is involved in student loan financing.

Does it make any sense from a fiscal responsibility standpoint for Montgomery County government to enter the student loan business at this time? The assessment of Katz, the only Councilmember with real-world business experience, suggests the answer is, "No."

"I, candidly, am very, very concerned about the debt Montgomery County has," Katz said during a June 22 meeting of the Government Operations and Fiscal Policy (GO) Committee. "If we don't get a handle on this, if we don't get a blueprint on debt in Montgomery County, it's going to overtake us. Right now, if [our debt] was a department, it would be the third largest department in Montgomery County."

Katz also expressed concern with the uncertain revenue forecast for the coming years. Trump administration cuts to government could drastically reduce income tax revenue for the County, Katz noted. Montgomery County is locked in a structural deficit as far out as the forecasts go - meaning that, as it is now, we already will be in the red every single fiscal year.

In the context of these red flags, a report by the County Office of Legislative Oversight raises many concerns.

How much would it cost taxpayers to launch the Authority? "The Montgomery County Department of Finance has estimated that a Montgomery County Student Loan Refinancing Authority would need $20 to $30 million to start a $100 million refinancing program," the report states.

The report confirms that these start-up funds "would impact the County’s debt levels (the amount the County can borrow)."

It appears loans would be extended to illegal immigrants, according to Page 4 under "Eligibility." On Page 6 of that section, it floats the idea of requiring a co-signer "if a borrower is not a U.S. citizen." In other words, resident taxpayers would be paying to provide low-cost student loans to non-taxpaying, non-resident students. Wow.

Later, the report notes that there are already numerous private student loan refinancing firms, and that their interest rates are actually less than the state-run loan entities the Council wants to ape. Why would we enter a market where there is no vacuum, with a more expensive product? Nuts.

A response from the office of County Executive Ike Leggett wisely pans the idea of entering the student loan business. "Student loan debt is the largest and fastest-growing share of consumer debt, and has the highest delinquency rate of all consumer credit debt," wrote Timothy Firestine, the County's Chief Administrative Officer, on behalf of Leggett. "As a result, there are few states and no localities willing to incur the financial risk and significant cost of operating a Student Loan Refinancing Authority."

Creating such an authority would "seriously impact many of our critically-important programs, ranging from K-12 education to safety and transportation," Firestine added. Starting it up would likely require the County to issue more debt, he said, and budget cuts in other areas would be needed to fund start-up costs, he wrote.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Another MoCo DLC employee busted for stealing $20K+ of liquor from DLC trucks

Kelvin Snowden, Jr., a
Montgomery County DLC employee
police say stole liquor from DLC trucks
Montgomery County's government liquor monopoly is embroiled in yet another scandal. One of their employees was arrested by Montgomery County police yesterday, and charged with stealing $21,769 worth of liquor from the Department of Liquor Control's own trucks.

Police say Jean Auguste, 27, of Lanham, and Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control (DLC) employee Kelvin Eugene Snowden Junior, 31, of Gaithersburg, took the alcohol from box trucks parked at the Department of Liquor Control warehouse, which is located on Edison Park Drive in Gaithersburg. The alleged thefts occurred between Valentine's Day and May 28 of this year.

Montgomery County police responded to the last of what detectives say were 8 total thefts from the DLC warehouse site on May 28, and caught Auguste parked nearby in a Chevrolet Suburban, with cases of DLC liquor in the vehicle. The ensuing investigation led them to Snowden, who they say was the main thief who actually broke into the DLC to steal from the trucks. Snowden also allegedly sold stolen DLC liquor to Auguste on at least one occasion.

This is not the first time a DLC employee has been arrested for stealing liquor from the DLC. In 2014 and 2015, employees were caught stealing alcohol and were fired. Many have called for an end to the outdated Montgomery County government liquor monopoly, which has proved inept, internally corrupt, and expensive and tedious for bars and restaurants to purchase alcohol through.
Councilmember Hans Riemer
was at the center of a previous DLC scandal
County Councilman Hans Riemer was also ensnared in a 2014 DLC scandal that came to be known as "Beerghazi." Riemer appeared to be aware of criminal activity within the DLC - but instead of reporting it immediately to authorities, he kept quiet until after he was safely reelected in November 2014.

Less than 48 hours after the polls had closed, Riemer then appeared in a formal, sit-down interview with NBC 4 in which he attempted to then use the information he had withheld to promote himself as a crusader against DLC corruption. It was clear that the NBC 4 investigation had occurred long before Election Day, and that Riemer had been in on the reporter's investigation all along. But with Riemer having direct oversight of the DLC, revealing the criminal activity in the department before Election Day could have damaged his chances of reelection.

Riemer had previously claimed it was time for the government to get out of the liquor business. But in 2015, he flip-flopped and suddenly endorsed maintaining - and strengthening - the government liquor monopoly. And here we are today, with the same Jurassic World government monopoly liquor system, and another DLC employee behind bars. "Helpless" Hans Riemer strikes again!